WORK to install a major new pipeline that will require months of road closures in Oxford may have begun without permission.

Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (OUH) is today facing more questions over its handling on the Hospital Energy Project, an underground heating system that will link the John Radcliffe Hospital with the Churchill Hospital in Headington.

After claims from residents and councillors that they were not given enough notice of the work, it has now emerged the contractor hired by the trust may not have applied for planning permissions needed from Oxford City Council.

In a letter to Vital Energi Ltd, the company carrying out the pipeline scheme, the city council's most senior planning official said it remained "unclear" whether it had the right to start work – despite already having done so on Monday.

Patsy Dell, head of planning, wrote: "The council as local planning authority has no record of specific planning permission being sought or given for the proposed works between the two hospital sites.

"At the current time our position is that planning permission appears necessary for the proposed works and I would urge you and the trust to address this situation by the submission of a full planning application at the earliest opportunity."

It is understood that the need for planning permission does not mean the work must halt immediately.

One planning official told the Oxford Mail last night that Vital Energi Ltd still had the chance to respond to the council's letter, but could then apply for retrospective planning permission if the council did not take enforcement action.

The news came as a watchdog committee of Oxfordshire County Council also said it would internally investigate the granting of licences for road closures that are needed for the scheme.

It is to address concerns raised by county councillors in Headington and local people that the traffic orders – which include six months of road closures and temporary losses of resident parking – were not publicised enough.

Councillor Liz Brighouse, leader of the Labour group and chairman of the performance scrutiny committee, said: "We want people to be confident that the right processes were adopted and will be looking into this within the next six weeks."

A licence for the work was applied for in January 2014, then again in late October, but the trust did not publicise its plans until November.

OUH has not yet commented on the issue of planning permission.

But in response to the concerns about publicity of the scheme, head of estates Mark Neal said last night: "We acknowledge that residents affected by this project would have liked to have received information on the pipeline earlier. 

"However, the trust waited to follow official approval processes related to the pipeline so that accurate details of the route and timetable of the works were released. 

"The trust accepts that the flow of information to local residents has not been as good as we would like and we have apologised to many residents in person, put two-way communications channels in place to directly respond to those affected and appointed a dedicated community liaison officer to answer residents’ queries directly.  

"Once details were finalised in the late autumn 2015, the trust organised a press conference to release information and invited local councillors to hear about the plans on 30 November. 

"This is the most complex NHS energy project of its kind underway in the UK and a large amount of detailed information was communicated. 

"We wanted to ensure that the thousands of people using our services, over a million patient contacts a year, knew of the many positive benefits the energy project will bring to them. 

"We felt that the best way to do this was to publicise the project through the local and regional media."